Lower spring runoff can make for some good stream fishing

John Gregg, of Quincy, shows off the 9-pound Mackinaw he caught at Bucks Lake on March 19. Right now is the time the big lake trout swim in the shallower water, making shore fishing a great option. Photo submitted
Michael Condon
Staff Writer


“Everyone should believe in something; I believe I’ll go fishing.”

Henry David Thoreau

In recent years I have tended to ignore the spring stream opener.

I just don’t find high and muddy streams that attractive to fish. The fast water makes it really tough to get your fly where you want it and when you are lucky enough to cast your fly into that sweet spot, well, it is gone in a heartbeat.

It is against my nature to consider any time spent fishing as a waste of time. But stream fishing in heavy spring runoff can come dangerously close.

But this year when I think about runoff, the question that comes to mind is “what runoff?”

We just finished one of the driest winters on record and the snowpack in the Sierra is pathetically low.

The implications of near-record low runoff are frightening in many respects. But there is a tiny silver lining in this big dark cloud. Stream conditions this spring should be very favorable for fishing.

So why am I fixated on stream fishing this early? Sure, most of our local streams won’t be open for fishing this year until April 26. And the tributary streams of Lake Almanor and Butt Lake won’t open until the Saturday before Memorial Day.

But we do have one earlier opportunity.

The Middle Fork Feather River from the A23 bridge 4 miles east of Portola downstream to the Mohawk bridge opens Saturday, April 5, this year.

This special regulation was put in place to mitigate the lost fishing opportunities at Lake Davis due to the pike eradication project. Lake Davis is back and in fine shape, but the mitigation is still in place.

This is relatively flat water and is less subject to the high flows from spring snowmelt that the downstream sections of the Middle Fork experience. Despite that, it can still be a bit high and off-color when it first opens. This year the flows should be much tamer and the water much more clear.

Even though the water will be in better shape than most years, it is still early spring and the water is very cold.

Getting your bait or fly near the bottom will be the key to successful fishing.

A weighted nymph under an indicator will work best for fly anglers. I am a bit old school, but I love zug bugs, pheasant tail nymphs and bead head mayflies in this situation. Bouncing eggs along the bottom is a good tactic for bait anglers.

I am usually a big advocate of catch-and-release fishing. But I think the importance of releasing fish depends on the needs of each individual fishery.

Even though the upper Middle Fork is fed by a vast spring system in Sierra Valley, it normally suffers from warm water late in the season. It is likely to be much worse than normal this year.

It would not hurt my sensibilities at all to keep a couple fish for the pan this year, as they are likely to face some very tough conditions later in the summer.

Fish will be competing for the little bit of cold oxygenated water later this year. A little less competition may actually help the remaining fish.

So this year, I am looking forward to some early season stream fishing. Stream fishing may take a big hit later this summer as the sparse snowpack takes its toll. So I hope to get out early and fish the streams while the fishing is good.

But as I look out my window, I see the surrounding hills are covered in snow from recent spring showers. It is raining lightly here in Quincy and likely snowing just up the hill. The weather forecast calls for much more over the next few days. So maybe when I get out there I will find more runoff than I expected. But it won’t last long. That is just the way it goes with fishing.

If the streams are a little high, there are always the lakes. And we do have some great ones.


Lake Almanor

The spring brown trout bite continues, according to local guide Bryan Roccucci of Big Daddy’s Guide Service. Bryan has been trolling for browns and hooking some very healthy fish. Bryan says that some fish are weighing in at 5 pounds at only 22 inches in length. Those are some fat and healthy fish!

Bryan attributes the healthy girth to the abundant pond smelt.

Doug Neal of Almanor Fishing Adventures is finding a mix of salmon, browns and an occasional rainbow trolling fast-action lures.

Doug likes the 1/6-ounce red and gold or nickel hammer finish Speedy Shiners. He has been trolling them about 20 feet deep at 2.8 mile per hour.

Doug has seen lots of fish along the west shore but they are on the move: here one day and gone the next. The better trolling has been along the east shore.

Bank anglers are catching some nice fish off the causeway just outside of Chester. I have not heard any reports, but I would except that fly anglers are finding some nice browns in the coves along the west shore.


Lake Davis

Lake Davis has been producing some excellent action for fly anglers. Fishing pheasant tail, hares ear or prince nymphs under an indicator has been the most productive technique.

The east shore is best, especially when the sun is off the water. When the sun is on the water there are a few blood midges showing. Fish are plump for spring and averaging 17 to 22 inches long.


Bucks Lake

Spring fishing can be great at Bucks Lake. Bucks has a tremendous number of fish. All summer long anglers catch kokanee salmon, brook trout and rainbows.

There are also some huge browns and monster lake trout (Mackinaw) in Bucks Lake. Early spring is when the big boys come up into shallow water.

The hungry bruisers cruise the lake shore in search of smaller fish. Bank anglers can get into some beautiful fish this time of year, but the fish are on the move so it’s the boat anglers who have the best chance of hooking into some of Bucks’ biggest fish.

Trolling Rapalas and other baitfish imitations near shore is the most productive. Fast-action lures like Speedy Shiners work great and allow you to troll a little fast and cover more water.

The lake level is lower than I have ever seen it this time of year. Launching a boat is best done with a four-wheel drive vehicle. The road is not plowed past Haskins, but there were some tracks in the snow. My truck is two-wheel drive so I did not explore how far those tracks went.


Frenchman Lake

Frenchman continues to fish well. Bank anglers are drifting worms suspended off the bottom or using PowerBait. Fish are averaging 14 to 16 inches. Pressure is very light.


Lower Feather River (Oroville area)

The spring steelhead fishing is very good with best reports coming from the low flow section (Highway 70 bridge to outlet). Swinging pond smelt patterns, egg patterns and bright green caddis pupae are all catching fish. Blue-winged olive nymphs are hot flies midday on overcast and rainy days.


North Fork Feather (above Lake Oroville)

Fishing is open from the Cresta Powerhouse to downstream to Lake Oroville. The water is cold but the fish are active for a couple hours during the warmest part of the day.

The best method is suspending midges and blue-winged olive mayfly nymphs under a small indicator. The cold water has the fish holding in the tailouts. Fishing pressure is very light.

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